We are still Africa’s real Number?1, but ...

2014-04-13 15:00

Oh how we love to beat ourselves up! One moment we are labelling ourselves the crime capital of the world and piping up about the fact that we have one of the worst road fatality rates on the planet.

Then we bitch and moan about how international tests have shown that our schoolchildren are dumber than Malawian kids. We scream from the mountains tops that we are the most unequal society in the world.

We latch on to any statistic, often accurate, that tells us just how worse off we are than anybody else.

Before you say it out loud, I will beat you to it: our tribe is among the worst culprits when it comes to this as we disseminate these stats and views in print and over the airwaves. Unlike the famous Paralympian, I did not need Gerrie Nel to bully me into making a confession.

Now, back to the South African obsession with self-flagellation. This week, we were busy going at it like medieval monks.

The subject this time was the news that Nigeria overtook South Africa to become the continent’s biggest economy. Through a process called rebasing, Nigeria’s economy trebled in size to $510?billion (R5.3?trillion).

This process involved including sectors that were previously not accounted for and by revaluing existing sectors.

Normal countries, such as South Africa, do this every five years. Nigeria, on the other hand, had not conducted this exercise for more than two decades and still used 1990 as a base year for measuring its economy. Needless to say, megatons of changes have happened in the world since then.

Now, I know many will regard what follows as a case of South African sour grapes.

So, let this lowly newspaperman state that he believes we should celebrate Nigeria’s leap, which now ranks it alongside respectable European economies such as Belgium.

As the South African National Treasury pointed out, the more powerful African economies we have the better for the continent and for our own country. The Treasury also threw in the fact that South African business had contributed to the health of Nigeria’s economy.

As soon as the news broke, South Africans were quick to say that this was definite proof that we were on a downslide. The lament was that Nigeria is now even richer than us, so investors would now be more likely to make Romeo eyes at them than they would at us.

But before getting carried away with our self-flagellation fest, let us pause and look at the facts.

Firstly, South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which measures individual spending power and therefore the real measure of a country’s wellbeing, is still double that of Nigeria. Increasingly, economic thinking is prioritising this measure as the more meaningful one.

Secondly, South Africa’s infrastructure is light years ahead of Nigeria’s and even comes close to that of highly developed countries. Yes, we have our potholes and Eskom occasionally gives us a rude punch to the nose, and our broadband is a source of frustration. But overall, we are okay.

Ask the citizens and businesses in Africa’s newly crowned Number?1 economy about their experiences with electricity and water supply and you will not have to buy a ticket to the next Trevor Noah show.

Thirdly – and on a more sombre note – South Africa is not battling the levels of instability that Nigeria faces.

Besides the horrid Boko Haram killings that have claimed 1?500 lives this year alone, there are low-level insurgencies in other parts of the country arising out of unfinished business in Nigeria’s federal setup.

There is also the very critical factor of corruption, which has become almost institutionalised in the west African country.

Lastly and most importantly, South Africa is a functioning democracy with a rule-of-law culture and strong accountability mechanisms. As author John Carlin wrote in this paper last week, we have a noisy and stubborn citizenry that challenges authority.

Having said all that, there are reasons to be worried. And the reasons have to do with complacency, lethargy and the diminution of the above qualities.

The infrastructure renewal programme government has committed itself to needs to be accelerated.

Our instability may not take the form of insurgency or terrorism, but the violent aspect of service delivery protests and labour disputes should get warning lights flashing.

Violence is becoming too normal and acceptable a weapon in our democratic society.

Then you have the interrelated issues of corruption, adherence to the rule of law and respect for accountability. Recent developments have shown worrying signs that high-level corruption is no longer frowned upon by those who govern us, that respect for the rule of law is being eroded and that accountability is being regarded as an irritation.

With functional countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Ghana hot on our heels, we need to catch a wake up. Being overtaken by Nigeria on GDP size should not be a cause for depression. It should rather spur us to doing much better on the things that make us stand out.

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